Des von Bladet has an interesting and (as always) amusing meditation on the nature of syllables and the counting thereof and what it all adds up to (“what have you accomplished that is distinguishable from not having accomplished anything?”). If the sentence “A word like ts’ktskwts’ ‘he arrived’ could be analyzed as having no syllables (since it has no vowels), or up to 5 or 6, depending on whether obstruents are considered syllabic and whether all consonants are analyzed as part of the syllable” makes your blood race faster, by all means go read the rest.


  1. Michael Farris says

    Since he doesn’t seem to have comments, I’ll dive in here:
    1. I don’t necessarily think syllables are a perceptual universal. As I remember in Aymara absolutely nothing seemed to be based on the idea of a syllable and you can analyze Aymara phonology pretty in depth without the subject ever coming up. I’d suspect that the Bella Coola examples he gives are similar. If syllables don’t jump out at you (as they do in most languages) don’t worry about them. (that’s my American structural bias coming into play).
    2. My masters thesis (not all it could have been for a number of reasons) dealt with the idea of syllables in sign language (specifically Polish Sign Language and to a lesser extent others) and how that can/should relate to sign transcription systems (including my own dearly departed transcription system).
    _extreme_ simplification/distortion: My version was based largely on Lidell’s Movement-Hold and the Hand-Tier model (though differed from both in pretty much ignoring hands as elements of syllables).
    In brief: I posit that the units of a sign language syllable are Location (L) and Movement (M)
    syllabe shapes are
    L (usually has “internal movement” but the hand(s) don’t move in terms of location the ASL sign YELLOW is a good example
    ML movement from a non-salient location to a salient location (ASL I)
    LM movement from a salient location to a non-salient location (ASL NOT)
    LML movement from one salient location to another salient location (ASL SHE_GIVE_ME)
    roughly speaking, salient means something like ‘more important than non-salient’ so the first person pronoun (the same in almost all sign languages) is ML movement from an unspecified location to the chest, while the ASL sign NOT is LM which moves from the specified location (chin) to a non-specified (non-salient) location away from the chin.
    For those that know some ASL
    SIT is ML while Chair is MLML (two syllables)

  2. Well Chomsky and Halle had no place for syllables. It’s only come back with a rather extreme theoreticization, such that it’s convenient to define ‘cat’ as having two syllables, the second of which has no syllabic peak, the defining character of a syllable.

  3. a good linguistic website says
  4. joe tomei says

    Hmmm. Seems a bit overly snarky for my tastes. though that seems to be his(?) shtick. I mean, the next entry has a riff on Proto-Slavic version of ‘do you take credit cards?’. Certainly full marks for take-the-pissedness.
    However, one should consider that with a lot of these languages (like Bella Coola), the possibility of getting a poet or a group of kids making up poetry or playing word games to permit transcription is pretty far fetched. While I wish that earlier researchers had paid more attention to this, the academy requires at least an attempt at a rigorous model to generate hypotheses that can be tested.
    And while I don’t have much on Bella Coola, in Sahaptin, the number of vowel-less words is limited to a handful, so a metric that works for 99% of the words seems to be pretty darn good.I imagine that the list of words in Bella Coola that present this problem could be listed on fingers and toes at best.
    Furthermore, you need a syllabic tier to be able to ‘construct’ a place to stick concepts like vowel length, stress and tone, all concepts that we can’t isolate in a lab, but when I call an obasan (auntie) an oba:san(grandma) (or tell my wife I want a furin(illicit affair rather than a fu:rin(wind chime) the ‘not found in a lab’ excuse doesn’t quite cut it.
    As for why we can’t detect syllables in the lab, I think it has to do with the fact that prominence is a relative concept, not an absolute and so it is impossible to produce an isolated segment or group of segments and argue that they are syllables in the absence of anything to compare to them to.

  5. There are certain reasons to like the syllable-without-a-vowel theories, though you need to be careful not to push it too far.

  6. Michael Farris says

    “you need to be careful not to push it too far”
    like so much in linguistics, intriguing until you actually try to do something with it …

  7. joe tomei says

    like so much in linguistics, intriguing until you actually try to do something with it …
    Reminds me of a comment in the Wired issue about speech recognition by the president of a SR company, who said “every time I fire a linguist, my program improves 20%”

  8. I’ll stop shilling for the theory after this, but you can actually do things with it. What I meant by “not take it too far” is to say that CVX words in all languages are two-syllabled, or more generally that final consonants are always their own syllable, or, even worse, that all syllables are CV so a word like “string” is actually sXtXrinXgX where the Xs are all empty syllable peaks (I read a few articles arguing this).

  9. Michael Farris: Thanks for the sign-language info, and hoorah for good old-fashioned American structuralisme!

Speak Your Mind